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The COVID-19 online shadow economy

by   Alberto Bracci, et al.
City, University of London

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the demand for goods and services worldwide. The combination of a public health emergency, economic distress, and disinformation-driven panic have pushed customers and vendors towards the shadow economy. In particular Dark Web Marketplaces (DWMs), commercial websites easily accessible via free software, have gained significant popularity. Here, we analyse 472,372 listings extracted from 23 DWMs between January 1, 2020 and July 7, 2020. We identify 518 listings directly related to COVID-19 products and monitor the temporal evolution of product categories including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medicines (e.g., hydroxyclorochine), and medical frauds(e.g., vaccines). Finally, we compare trends in their temporal evolution with variations in public attention, as measured by Twitter posts and Wikipedia page visits. We reveal how the online shadow economy has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic and highlight the importance of a continuous monitoring of DWMs, especially when real vaccines or cures become available and are potentially in short supply. We anticipate our analysis will be of interest both to researchers and public agencies focused on the protection of public health.


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